Although John Vars grew up in the agriculturally rich Willamette Valley of Oregon, he planted his roots on California’s Pacific Coast.
“My house was in a pretty typical suburban neighborhood. I did, however, visit Grandpa’s farm, a sheep and cattle ranch in western part of the state,” he said.
While apprenticing at the University of California-Santa Cruz Farm and Garden program in 2002 he became enamored with the concept of sustainable agriculture.
"I only really thought about farming myself while immersed in that apprenticeship community dedicated to practicing and teaching organic practices,” he said.
His passion for organic farming led Vars and another couple — Mike Irving and Teresa Kurtak — to start Fifth Crow Farm. He said the name doesn’t have a story behind it. The partners just wanted something unique and liked the way it sounded.
Mild year-round temperatures make it possible to grow 12 months a year in Pescadero, between San Francisco and Santa Cruz. The 80-acre farm boasts 30 acres of row crops and can produce beautiful lettuce and cool crops in the middle of the summer, but still pull off delicious sweet peppers planted in a hoop house that provides season-extending protection and warmth for plants.
More than 50 other crops include carrots, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, leeks, onions, strawberries and sage.
“We are close to the enormous Bay Area market, probably among the most supportive of local and sustainable farming in the whole world,” Vars said. “Brussels sprouts is a hard one to grow organically but we still persist because it’s a great winter product when what we have is limited."
Pescadero is in the heart of commercial Brussels sprout country.
The farm also grows over 40 varieties of certified organic cut flowers on 2 acres. The operation focuses on unusual and pollinator-friendly varieties.
“My wife has worked for the business periodically and we are hoping to recruit her to manage the flower operation,” he said. “We have four small children between the two couples and hopefully we will be successful enough so that one or more of them want to be involved.”
Fifth Crow Farm sells directly to its consumers. About 70 percent goes to seven Bay Area farmers' markets, and the rest is split evenly between a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and some small wholesale accounts that include a specialty distributor, a couple of small grocers and two dozen restaurants.
Deer and other pests are not the only challenges facing the region's farmers.
“In our area, the availability of affordable housing for our workers and ourselves is probably the biggest single challenge,” Vars said. “More generally, water availability and labor costs are hard for California farmers. Farmworkers are the back bone of the food system and deserve to be valued. The ones that work for us are among the most decent and hardworking people I ever been honored to meet.
"Therefore, I am unequivocally in favor of California’s progressive legislation to increase the minimum wage and extend standard overtime benefits to agricultural workers," he said. "However, the realities of the food economy, even for growers who capture most of the food dollar, as we do, make it hard for farmers to meet those demands for better wage, pay ourselves and accumulate the capital needed to innovate and grow our businesses.”